COVID-19 – Economy or Life?
In December 2019 the COVID-19 virus, a respiratory illness, made itself known to the world in a city called Wuhan in China. Many countries were in their holiday season, including South Africa. Life for many people, especially those who were travelling internationally, continued as normal. We were unaware of this virus or the danger it held. Sadly, even today, doctors and scientists are still trying to understand the virus.
New Year was also around the corner. People were making their New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps some wished to lose weight. The most realistic resolutions though, especially for many in our country, and to mention but a few, were: to find jobs, be able to buy food for their families, get themselves houses, and to be able afford school uniforms for their children. These wishes were expressed by many South Africans.
When news reached us in February of people infected with COVID-19, my thoughts went straight to the many people who live in informal settlements across our country. We are no longer alarmed by the growing number of places people call their home in South Africa, these so-called informal settlements.
The picture in my mind was the limited space people living in these areas find themselves in. There are often four or more people sharing a small shack. The messages about preventing the spread of COVID-19, to wash our hands, to physically distance ourselves from one another and to remain indoors, is in truth, nearly impossible in informal settlements. Every day millions of people in informal settlements, are faced with sharing toilets and taps, their small homes are like prison cells, and movement is difficult.
When President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa called for a lockdown, we knew it was time to face the virus head-on, even in these dire circumstances. For some it would be easily managed, but for many it was going to be an impossible challenge.
The situation in Alexandra, a township north of Johannesburg, is awful. Many people are living in squalor. They already find day to day living, without lockdown, difficult. In the early days of the lockdown people in the township were moving around as if daily life was normal. Those that were interviewed, when asked if they knew about the danger of the virus, responded by saying, “it only affects those that travel by planes and not us.” The response arose from the deep seated pain of poverty and misery.
I trust and believe they do want to respect the call of the President, but the living conditions make it difficult and at times impossible. The apartheid government is responsible for the unfair distribution of wealth that was based on one’s skin colour. The new democratic government, post-1994, is living with the consequences of their own corruption and the theft of public funds. These misappropriated funds could have been used to build houses for people and to create more jobs. I hope that all the damage done before COVID-19, as well as the economic losses of the lockdown, can be a lesson for our future.
When we think of economics we must also think of life. Without life there can be no economy. This is a moment when we really have to face the reality of where we are. It is not easy.